At twenty-five I dreamed a dream that has haunted me ever since: My mother faces me on the sloping deck of a gunmetal gray ocean liner. Perhaps it is an aircraft carrier; it has that same forbidding, ominous look. A narrow rail runs along the edge of the deck. No deck chairs, nothing to hold a body to the surface of the ship – and that slope, that slope is strange. Should you slip on that sloping deck you would careen right over the edge.
I peer over the side. Huge waves boil and heave, flinging angry spray dozens of feet in the air and still not even close to where I stand clutching the rail. If I fell overboard I would drown within seconds. No one would hear my cries. No one would even know I was gone.
Something, a sixth sense, makes me turn around. My mother stands yards away from me on the sloping deck, her arms held out for balance in the strong wind. She is smiling. She’s wearing her blue velveteen bathrobe, the one that zips from ankle to neck. She’s wearing her blue slippers too. She looks the way she looks first thing in the morning, when she moves about the kitchen making coffee.
She smiles at me. Her arms are held straight out to either side. She looks light and joyful.
“Shall I jump now?” she says.
Years later, I tell only one friend about my dream. I describe the blue bathrobe, the happiness in my mother’s eyes.
“The blue bathrobe,” says my friend. “Hmm. What does the blue bathrobe represent to you? Security? Warmth? Comfort?”
I suppose the blue bathrobe represents all those things to me, but that is not what I focus on. What I see are those arms, lifting as if to catch the wind.
When I unravel time, the furthest back I can go is this: my mother was ahead of me, climbing up brown stairs that had little bits of grey on them. I know this because I am crawling up the stairs, looking down at them inches from my nose. My mother carries a bucket. I am wearing diapers; I can feel the plastic heaviness rubbing on my legs and back. I look out through the railing on the stairs and I see the world going by and time passing, and my mother is climbing, climbing up beyond me and even though I cannot think in words yet I tell myself: Remember this.
My young mother is lovely, slim and straight, with beautiful long legs. Unruly chestnut hair frames her dark-brown eyes. She wears red lipstick. She shepherds her three small girls (our brother is not yet born) out to the bus for school, so that she can get in the car and drive to the high school where she teaches algebra and geometry. She drives to graduate school for her second master’s degree. She places an X and a Q on a Scrabble triple word space; has she won again? She has won again. She weeds the garden, plants flowers, hangs the laundered clothes out on the line. She sautees zucchini in her electric skillet. She does the New York Times crossword puzzle. Castanets in hand, she dances the flamenco.
I remember her sitting at the kitchen table before her worn sewing machine, feeding lengths of flowered cotton through the presser foot and needle. She senses my presence and looks up and smiles.
“Look,” she says, and holds up a sleeveless shift trimmed with cotton lace at the neck and hem. Flowers against a background of green. Red for my sister Laurel and yellow for my sister Holly. In the photo taken on Easter morning a few days later, our mother stands on the steps surrounded by her little girls, all three bathed, ribbons in their hair, wearing flowered dresses.
Years later, standing on the faded blue concrete of the porch, my mother wears her blue velveteen bathrobe and her navy velveteen slippers. She is waving goodbye to me. One arm rises and falls in a slow circular motion. She will wave until the car that is bearing me away is out of sight, rounding the curve of Route 274.
Where am I going?
Maybe I’m 16 and heading to Portugal as an exchange student.
Maybe I’m 18 and heading to college in Vermont.
Maybe I’m 20 and on my way to Taipei, Taiwan for a semester.
Maybe I’m 22 and moving to Boston.
Maybe I’m 25 and driving west, to Minneapolis.
Wherever I’m going, it’s away.
My mother stands on the porch, waving and smiling until I’m all the way gone. See her now. She cups her hands around her mouth. Goodbye, she calls. Goodbye, darling girl.
“The dream,” my friend says. “Why the ship? Why the ocean? What sort of journey does this represent?”
Who the hell knows, I want to say. Who the hell cares? Can’t you see my mother, dammit, standing there, asking me if she should jump now?
My mother’s slender hands are always in motion, her fingers long and expressive.
“I talk with my hands, don’t I?” she said in astonishment, the first time she saw herself on video.
Sometimes. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t talk at all, but go still and silent, as you did when I was seven and your mother took the train up from the city to visit us.
Something was wrong and Grandma knew it. She had a sixth sense. A shift in the universe, molecules rearranging themselves six hours downstate in the New York City apartment she shared with my grandfather. Grandma picked up the telephone and called. My mother watched her. Grandma called again. And again. She paced back and forth, the telephone cord dangling as she walked. Finally Grandma called the building superintendent, and the superintendent opened the apartment door with his master key to find my grandfather dead by his own hand.
I remember driving to the city with my mother and father. I remember going up and down in an elevator, back and forth from their apartment to the street below. I remember the elevator full of boxes and bags on the way down, and empty on the way up except for me and my parents. I remember my mother’s weary eyes. She was thirty-one, an age so young to me now and unfathomably adult to me then, when I was seven.
And I remember the years following, eleven years of daily 4:30 p.m. telephone calls from my mother – home with her four children, home from teaching all day – to my grandmother. My mother, steadfast companion, she who does what needs to be done.
At twenty-two I graduated from a prestigious college with a highly marketable degree in Chinese and Asian Studies, student loans and a singleminded desire to write fiction. I did not even try to find a real job. Instead, I lived in a tiny room in Boston and freelance typed to pay the bills, while rising at dawn to write my stories.
She said nothing. She let me be, as she always has. She did not try to steer me in any particular direction, despite the fact that she longed for me to be financially secure, the way she never was as a child.
She used to visit me in Boston, in that scraping-by former life of mine that I loved so much. We roamed the streets and drank coffee and ate muffins from DeLuca’s Market, sitting on the floor of my tiny chairless room. We wandered through the Public Garden and along the Esplanade by the Charles River. At night I unrolled a camping mattress onto the floor (no room for a bed) and she slept next to me. She read the short stories I typed out on my rented IBM Selectric II.
My mother stands on the sloping deck of the gray ship. Her arms are out to her sides. My heart seizes. I try to move toward her, take her winged arms in mine and lower them, but nothing happens. Dream paralysis.
“Do you suppose the dream means that she’s just tired?” my friend says. “Sick of responsibility, maybe?”
My mother was a math teacher at a middle school in downstate New York when she found out she was pregnant for the first time, with the baby who would become me. She was twenty-three years old. She ran down the hall to the gym, where a pep rally was taking place, so happy that she couldn’t resist telling a fellow teacher: I’m going to have a baby! I’m going to have a baby!
“Maybe,” I said, “but my mother would not leave me unless she had no choice.”
When I was twenty-four, the man I had abandoned my heart to died. Suicide. A friend drove me from Boston to my parents’ house. It was a six-hour drive in a rattletrap car and my friend chattered to fill the silence and sometimes I bent over in the seat and pushed my forehead into the musty vinyl of the dashboard.
I remember my mother waiting with outstretched arms on the porch. I remember the ticking of the kitchen clock that marked off each fifteen-minute block of time. I remember the plate of pork chops and applesauce and bread and butter she set before me, none of which I could eat.
In a photo from that time, I sit in a bikini on a beach by my mother’s favorite mountain, up in the Adirondacks. Every rib shoves itself out from my skin; I am knobs and bones and angles shivered in pain. Exhaustion in my eyes. My mother is invisible behind the camera, silent witness to her child’s grief. My mother, patient companion.
My sister Laurel and I are at Laurel’s house in New Hampshire, lazily flipping through one of our old high school yearbooks, cackling at what dorks we were. We come to the teachers’ section and see our mother’s photo in the math department.
We stop laughing.
“It was the year Grandma died,” Laurel says after a while.
My mother was my age when her mother lay in a coma in a room at St. Luke’s hospital in Utica, New York. The nurses told my mother that Grandma’s blood pressure was dropping, and my mother sat vigil in the quiet room. At some point in the night, my mother went out to the nurse’s station to lie down on their couch and try to sleep. She startled out of sleep to hear her mother calling to her in a young and happy voice.
Thinking it was a dream, my mother went back to sleep. Half an hour later the nurse came to waken her, and said that Grandma had died.
“I have always felt that this was her way of telling me that she was fine,” my mother tells me.
Who else did my mother have to see her through her grief? No sister, no brother, father long dead. All my mother had in the way of a patient companion, a witness to her sorrow, was that fleeting call from her dying mother, that young and happy voice.
Our mother in black and white smiles out from the old book, weariness in her eyes. Oh my mother, how thin you are, too thin. How young you look. The present me looks like the past you. If only I could reach into that book, into the room where you sit alone at your desk, and put my arms around you. Comfort you. Make you a plate of pork chops and applesauce. Tell you, as you have told me in the dark hours, that all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
“So our mother is off to Guatemala,” Laurel tells me. “Some house project for Habitat for Humanity. Can you imagine her, pouring concrete?”
She laughs. So do I. It is entirely possible for our mother to be pouring concrete and we both know it. There is not much that is impossible to imagine our mother doing. Close your eyes and pick a day, any day, in the life of our mother. Here she is driving north to the mountain lakes, her yellow kayak in the back of her van. Playing Scrabble with a housebound elder. Teaching English as a Second Language to Bosnian refugees. Working at the local food bank, putting together a charity mailing, begging for pledges for her latest ski-a-thon, walk-a-thon, canoe-a-thon, take your pick of any and all worthy causes.
I rise in a summer dawn and steal glimpses of my children, asleep in their rooms. My youngest has taken off her pajama shirt in the night and lies on her side, hands tucked together under her chin as if in prayer.
Behold her smooth brown back, her spine a tender curve of buttons, her ribs a pair of cupped hands that hold her heart. The moment I had a baby was the moment I understood terror, my heart blown sideways with adoration and fear. How dazzling and how awful to love someone this much.
Not long ago my mother and I sat in her kitchen, talking of children, mine and hers. Dogs, mine and hers. Teaching, mine and hers. Fiction writing: mine. Projects that make the world a better place: hers.
“I could tell you anything, my darling girl,” she says at one point. “You have been through the fire.”
Fire, meaning the kind of loss and grief that cracks your heart. Fire, meaning joy so deep that it, too, opens your heart. Fire, meaning life, the way it stretches and hurts and raptures you, if you let it all in.
There is one fire I have not yet been through, though.
I see my mother standing on the porch in her blue velveteen bathrobe, smiling and waving, waving until I am out of sight.
And I see her standing on the sloping deck, waves hurling themselves at the smooth sides. Her arms rise up, wings in blue velveteen. Why does she sound so light of heart? No. No. But I am frozen in my dream and cannot scream.
“Maybe you’re interpreting it wrong,” my friend says. “Maybe what the dream is really asking you is this: are you ready to let her go?”
Soon I will wake. My throat will ache for the rest of the day. Twenty years later, my throat still aches when the nightmare imagery conjures itself. The only real lesson the years in between have taught me about my dream is this: that when the time does come for my mother to jump, to call my name in a young and happy voice, then the enormous work of staying behind and waving, waving until she is out of sight, will be mine.
* * *
(Note: this essay originally appeared in Riding Shotgun, an anthology of women writing about their mothers. The book is available here and there and online at places like amazon.)